Museum Moment: The 1956 Curtis Cup Match

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Members of the 1956 USA Curtis Cup team (back row, left to right): Mary Ann Downey, Barbara Romack, Jane Nelson, Carolyn Cudone and Winny Smith. In the front row (left to right) are Pat Lesser, captain Edith Flippen and Polly Riley. (USGA Museum)

March 25, 2010

By Rhonda Glenn, USGA

It wasn’t that the 1956 USA Curtis Cup team was jinxed, exactly, but when the players arrived in England, they had gnawing feelings of impending disaster.

The odd team selection, the strange “bon voyage” dinner, the torturous trip, and the first evidence of a budding Sports Illustrated curse gave the American players only shaky hopes that they could pull off a win.

“Frankly, we were sent over there to lose,” a veteran player later said.

Today their long-ago adventures make them seem like madcap heiresses on the loose in
Europe, but these seven women had a higher calling. They had worked to get to this place. The punishing hours they had spent beating balls and their struggles to play in the tournaments that mattered had finally paid off. Charming but hugely competitive, they went to England to win, and when we remember their matches, their antics and their encounters with some of the great historical figures of their time – it was perhaps the most compelling Curtis Cup trip of all. 

Only three members of the 1956 USA team survive – Wiffi Smith, Pat Lesser Harbottle and Barbara Romack – and they pondered the weird events surrounding that fateful match more than a half-century ago.

First, Betty Probasco declined a spot on the USA team. It was for a good reason – she was expecting her first child, and Met golfer Carolyn Cudone was named in her place. Still, no one had ever declined.

The 1956 team had only three experienced players: Polly Riley of Fort Worth, Texas, Romack, of Sacramento, Calif., and Lesser, of Seattle.

No golfer hated to lose more than the feisty little Riley. Riley had played on every USA team since World War II and was undefeated in singles. A short hitter, she fired laser-like fairway woods at the hole. She chipped like a champion. She made impossible putts.

Romack was the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Her stylish swing produced deceptive power and her big smile masked competitive zeal. Lesser was the 1955 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion. Her greatest gift was her scrambling, and she never gave up.

Cudone, Mary Ann Downey of Baltimore, Jane Nelson of Indianapolis and Smith, of St. Clair, Mich., were Curtis Cup rookies.

Riley toiled in the manager’s office of an aircraft manufacturing firm. Nelson was a social-studies teacher. Romack sold life insurance. Downey’s family was fairly well-off. Lesser was a senior at Seattle University. Wiffi, just 19, had not yet chosen a career but her fluid and powerful golf swing were her credentials.

Making the Curtis Cup team had been Smith’s unspoken goal and as team selection grew near, she knew success in the North & South Women’s Amateur was a key to her chances. Smith also knew that she would have to get past Romack in order to win.

In the run-up to the Curtis Cup, Romack was a target. Rather than resting on her laurels, the 1954 U.S. Women’s Amateur champion had determined she would be a playing champion. She played in nearly every tournament and sometimes suffered for it.

“I got so tired of having to be perfect,” she said.

Smith had often suffered at Romack’s hands. “I’d been playing on the Florida amateur circuit and every time I ran into Barbara, she’d beat my tail,” Smith said. “Every time I went to a tournament, I was in her bracket. I had one more tournament to play to get on the team and that was the North & South. Sure enough, I was in her bracket again. One day I was on the practice range and I made up my mind right then and there that she wasn’t going to beat me anymore.”

Smith and Romack met in the semifinals and Smith eked out a win. “I just managed to win and got on the team,” she said. “I was thrilled.”

Since 1932, the USA had won every Curtis Cup match but one, a 5-4 defeat in 1952, but the 1956 team seemed slightly off-center from the start. In April, Romack was the first woman athlete to make the cover of Sports Illustrated as the “Curtis Cup Star”. In later years, talk of a curse would swirl around SI covers as featured athletes followed up their moment of glory with a loss. Was this the first instance of a curse?

Lesser ignored any premonitions of impending loss. “I was excited because I’d never been to England before, and playing for your country..,” said Lesser. “I might have ignored it. I was so excited about the whole thing.”

Then, there was the trip. The team would sail aboard the S.S. America for a staggering seven-and-a-half days. Would they be exhausted by the trip? How would they preserve their finely-honed swings? How strong would their legs be after they disembarked?

Players scrambled for passports and Romack took Downey to the passport office. Standing at the counter, Downey was asked her age. Flustered, she shooed Romack to the other side of the room.

“Get outta’ here,” Downey hissed, then whispered to the clerk, “Thirty.”

“THIRTY!” Romack yelled from across the room. “Biddy, you’re practically dead!”   

Before the USA team and captain Edith Flippin sailed from New York, the USGA hosted a farewell dinner. To the players’ dismay, the entrée was sweetbreads – the heart, throat, pancreas and even the stomach of calves and lambs were served at the training table for athletes about to embark on a long ocean voyage.

When reminded of the sweetbreads, Wiffi simply said, “Ugh.”

“We all looked at each other like, ‘What are these?’ ” said Romack. “None of us got sick, so that was all right. It kind of dawned on a couple of us that evening that we were being sent over to lose. Of course, we’d had a couple of pops, and we were laughing about the dinner and a 7½-day crossing. Some of the speeches at dinner implied that it would be all right if we lost, that it would probably be good for golf. It was just a feeling, but it wasn’t as if anyone was saying, ‘Go get ‘em team.’ ”

After the ship sailed on May 26th, high seas plagued the trip. One night, Romack was asked to dance and the ship’s captain held her upright as dancers staggered across the dance floor and dishes crashed to the deck.

It was a mischievous group. Jane Nelson couldn’t find a compatible dance partner and went down to steerage, which was rocking with raucous fun. “She came back with this fellow who was kind of good-looking and three sheets to the wind,” said Romack. “We asked her what his name was. She said, ‘You won’t believe this – it’s Shank!’ ”

“Take him back,” her teammates yelled, “we don’t want him near us!”

Riley was something of a mystery; no one knew her age, so her teammates plotted to find out. They followed her around the ship, noting where she went and the time of day. One morning when Riley struck off for her daily walk, they told Cudone, Riley’s roommate, to search the cabin for Riley’s passport. Riley suddenly appeared at the door, waving her passport over her head.

“Is this what you girls are looking for?” she laughed.

Flippin, the captain, installed a net on the deck for the players to hit balls into, a futile exercise in high seas. “We couldn’t stand up,” said Romack. “Polly tried it out and with her swing, it didn’t matter. On her backswing, she hit her right shoulder and her neck. On the follow-through, she hit her left shoulder and her neck. It didn’t bother her at all, but very few of us tried it.”

Smith adjusted to sea travel better than most and hit chip shots, putted and blasted balls into the ocean.

Some players tried to stay in shape by playing ring-toss over a net. They careened around the heaving deck, taking occasional falls, but the rings mostly went overboard and the games soon came to an end.

Dressing for dinner was required. Downey usually favored a simple skirt, blouse, and a head-band in her raven hair but she had scrambled to buy evening clothes before the ship sailed.

Romack heard Downey cursing as her cabin mate struggled with a panty girdle in the humidity of the “head” before dinner. “What the hell frock am I gonna wear for dinner?” Downey yelled. “Get some more ice, for god’s sake!”

After more than a week, the weary players finally landed on June 2nd at the Southampton wharf and were met by the GB&I team and driven to Prince’s Golf Club on Sandwich Bay in southeast England. A links course, Prince’s seemed barren but Riley and Romack relished the familiar terrain. Riley had played Curtis Cup at Muirfield and Royal Birkdale, while Romack had been runner-up in the 1955 British Ladies Open Amateur at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland.

Prince’s had been pounded during World War II, when it was “a vital defense against invasion from Hitler,” wrote Donald Steele in “Classic Golf Links of Great Britain and Ireland.” The layout where the famed Joyce Wethered won the 1922 British Ladies Open Amateur and where Gene Sarazen captured the 1932 Open had since been restored and the pockmarks from bombs repaired. Its scars healed, Prince’s now awaited the young women who were about to engage in another sort of fight for their countries.

The USA players checked into a cozy hotel not far from the course, where their little rooms seemed strewn as haphazardly as a rabbit warren through the nooks and crannies of the old building.

“Mary Ann’s room was adjacent to the boiler,” said Romack, “Polly’s room was in a sort of corner and you had to walk through my room to get to her door. The maid couldn’t get to where they stashed Polly without going through my room, so she pounded on my door early every morning, calling, ‘Wakey, wakey, Miss Riley, I have your coffee!’ ”

Edith Flippin had been captain of the victorious 1954 team. The 1936 Women’s Eastern Amateur champion was a fine player who understood the game, and had great warmth and fondness for her young brood.

Wiffi adored her captain. ”I just thought she was great,” Smith said. “I called her Captain Flip. I used to write her little notes on the English toilet paper, which was like crisp air-mail stationery in little sheets. It made just perfect little notes.”

A highlight of the trip was when the two teams were invited for tea June 3rd at Rest Harrow, the home of Nancy, Viscountiss Astor, better known as Lady Astor. The famous Nancy Langhorne Astor of Danville, Va., was the first woman to be seated in the House of Commons, and “a heckuva dame,” the players noted. It was a lively afternoon hosted by the woman famed for remarking to Winston Churchill, “If I were your wife, I’d put poison in your coffee.”

To which Churchill supposedly replied, “And if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

“Lady Astor was interesting,” Smith said, recalling that the famous woman stood on a table and made a speech to the teams.

One morning the Americans were taken to a country crossing where the young Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip changed carriages on their way to their summer digs at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. The players perched on fence rails and were waving at the young queen when Romack felt a nudge in her back from a huge cow standing behind.

Each day the teams trudged to teas and luncheons and festive dinners in their honor. One afternoon they were taken to a luncheon at Parliament with the House of Lords.

“We were so busy,” Romack recalled. “They took us everywhere.”

The touring stopped on June 8th and the matches began in horrific weather. Winds gusted to 45 miles an hour and sleet blew sideways over the course.

“…As vile a June day as I can remember,” wrote Jeanne Bisgood, a three-time GB&I player, in USGA Journal and Turf Management.

Norman Von Nida, the great Australian player, loaned Lesser his rain suit. Lesser wore eyeglasses, and took her glasses off to clean them throughout the match as sleet whipped her face. Somehow, Lesser and Smith eked out a 2-and-1 win over Jessie Valentine and Philomena Garvey in foursomes.

The only American team to lose a foursomes match was Romack and Riley, who went down to veteran Bunty Stephens Smith and Elizabeth Price, 5 and 3.

“Polly and I were good friends but we were terrible partners,” said Romack. “That particular day it was real cold and neither one of us could putt. It just got to be a joke. We were playing pretty well, but once we got on or near the green it was three-putt or four-putt.”

The wind howled. “Such pelting rain, such bitter blasts of wind were seldom felt,” wrote Bernard Darwin. “…It was appalling, but it brought out the fighting qualities of the American team, some of whom at least had never dreamed of golf in such a tempest… And they did look good: Miss Margaret Smith, a golfer of immense power; Miss Romack, tiny but compact, steady in a wind that might have blown her to the ends of the earth; Miss Lesser, mechanically sound.”

GB&I’s Janette Robertson and Veronica Anstey were 5-up on Cudone and Downey at the 14th, but the Americans won an incredible string, capturing 12 of the next 18 holes for a 6-and-4 victory.

The Americans’ 2-1 lead was minuscule and they now faced six grueling 36-hole singles matches the following day. Cudone would sit out.

Flippen rallied her team for singles. The skies brightened a bit the morning of June 9th, but the wind was howling and when the players broke for lunch, the anchor players for each team, veterans Riley and Bunty Stephens Smith, were locked in a heated duel.

Bisgood wrote that “…Smith had forged ahead while Miss Riley tacked from one side of the course to the other.” But Riley rallied and her homeward 35 squared the match at the lunch break.

All of the matches were tight. Angela Ward seemed to have Downey’s number. Romack had a 1-up lead over Robertson and Wiffi Smith had a sizable lead over Garvey. Nelson was struggling against Price, who had fired a 71 over the morning 18.

“We’re sitting there and Jane Nelson roars in,” said Romack, “and we asked, ‘Jane how are you doing?’ And Jane said, ‘Oh my god, I can’t play in this blankety-blank weather, I’m seven down! Oh, the hell with it!’ ”

Romack was in the middle of her third encounter with Robertson, and the American had won the previous two. “Janette hit the ball great and had a wonderful golf swing, but as far as her work around the green, that was where I could kind of have a little edge,” Romack said.

Downey went down to Ward, 4 and 3. Lesser, 2 up at lunch, lost, 6 and 4, to Valentine, the veteran who was playing 20 years after her first Curtis Cup appearance in 1936. Nelson’s match was a 7-and-6 disaster. Only Romack, by 6 and 4, and Wiffi Smith, by an overpowering 9-and-8, won points for the American side.

The score stood 4-4, with the Riley-Bunty Stephens Smith match still on the course. What a battle! Neither had ever lost in singles and the two tiny players fired away through the damp, vicious wind with thousands of GB&I fans following every swing.

They were, Bisgood wrote, “…each in her own way the greatest competitor on her side.”

Riley was one hole down, but won the 32nd to pull even. Smith went 1 up again at the 33rd, then Riley pulled even at the 34th. They halved the 35th. All square. One hole to play. The Curtis Cup on the line.

Bisgood wrote of “…an atmosphere of mounting excitement, which even to a spectator was hardly bearable.”

Some of the American players were walking in from their matches as the Smith-Riley match lumbered on. “We could kind of see them in the distance,” Romack said. “We could see this huge crowd around the 18th hole and we could kind of tell what was happening because of how the crowd reacts to certain shots.”

Darwin wrote: “(The last hole was) a drive and a high iron shot to a plateau green. Miss Riley sliced her second, and now Britain ought not to lose. Mrs. Smith played the wholly perfect shot. The ball pitched by the hole and ran eight or nine feet past. With two for the match she was a foot short. Then she popped the next one in. Mrs. Valentine rushed out and hugged her and the crowd was delirious.”

“I had tears in my eyes,” Lesser said. “I was stunned! We just felt really bad because it was only the second time the U.S. had lost in nine meetings.”

Romack would never forget. “It was a tough one. Mary Ann and I were walking in, we heard the roar go up. We knew that we had lost and we sat down in the rough and cried.

“There was a tremendous amount of pressure,” she said. “You don’t let yourself feel it, but you’re playing for yourself and your country. That has a lot to do with it – you can’t let the red, white and blue down. We tried our best, and now it wasn’t good enough.”

Out of 15 international matches for the Walker, Curtis and Ryder Cups since the war, GB&I had won only the 1952 Curtis Cup. Now they held a second cup.

Enid Wilson, the journalist and former GB&I Curtis Cup player, wrote of the Americans in Golf Illustrated. “They were a grand lot and played their golf with delightful spirit, and were indeed most charming and sporting opponents.”

After the bitter defeat some of the American players went to the French Open, which Wiffi Smith won handily, while Downey and Romack watched Ben Hogan and Sam Snead win the World Cup for the United States at Wentworth. Some attended a party at the home of U.S. Ambassador Winthrop Aldrich on June 14th and then went on their way.  

They all returned to play in the British Ladies Open Amateur at Sunningdale two weeks later. Riley beat her foursomes partner Romack, 1 up, in the third round. Wiffi was blazing through Europe and added the British championship to her French crown, gaining some measure of revenge for the USA as her teammates rooted hard from the sidelines.

Finally, the team took a train to London, where they would go their separate ways. Even in June, they shivered in the cold of their train compartment. When they asked the conductor to turn on the heat and he refused, they wadded up sheets of Sunday’s Times, tossed them on the bare floor of the car and lit a fire for warmth after he left the compartment.

“At least we were warm for about 10 minutes,” Romack said.

Nelson and Romack would drive through Belgium, Switzerland, Italy, France, Germany and Scotland before boarding a ship for home. In Scotland, they were given complimentary hotel rooms by John Kineer, a roguish Scotsman who owned the inn. Thrilled at an invitation to play the Old Course at St. Andrews, they struck off on yet another bitterly cold day.

“I was so cold,” Romack said. “I’d been cold for three weeks and finally I just couldn’t take it anymore and I lay down in Hell’s Bunker. My caddie said, ‘Na, Miss Romack, please get up, we don’t do this at St. Andrews.’ So I came out of the bunker and we finished. John Kineer said he’d take us back to his hotel and give me something to warm me up, which he did.”

Lesser and her parents went to Switzerland and Italy, spending most of their time touring Rome. In the Eternal City, the Lessers had an audience with Pope Pius XII.

“It was a so-called private audience,” Lesser remembered, “but about 500 people were in the room.”

Nelson and Romack sailed home on the S.S. United States on a smooth 4½-day return voyage and were listed at the top of the ship’s list of celebrity passengers, along with Walter Annenberg, the future U.S. ambassador to Britain and publisher and owner of the Philadelphia Inquirer.

As the ship approached New York, they sailed near Nantucket, passing the site where the great Italian liner Andrea Doria had gone down just a few days before, after colliding with the SS Stockholm. Forty-six people had died and the ghastly details of the tragedy were covered extensively in the press. The two young women stood at the railing, gazing down at an eerie scene where a giant oil slick marred the ocean’s surface, and tablecloths, life jackets and other debris floated on the waves. The Andrea Doria was the last trans-Atlantic passenger liner to sink before airplanes became the preferred method of travel. Never again would a Curtis Cup team suffer through a week at sea.

In September, Romack received a letter from Margaret Curtis, who had co-founded the Curtis Cup Match with her sister Harriot. Curtis’s letter confirmed Romack’s suspicions that the American team wasn’t expected to triumph.

“I do think it is a good thing that the other team won, as it keeps the match from being so one-sided and is good for international golf,” Curtis wrote.

The younger players were oblivious to American sentiments supporting a GB&I win, but veterans Downey, Romack and Riley knew the score. Polly, who had worked throughout her life to support herself and her mother, was extremely bright and witty, but cynicism was one of her strongest characteristics. Years later, it was Riley who said, “Sweetbreads! Well, we went over there and did what they wanted us to do.”

Polly Riley, Mary Ann Downey, Jane Nelson and Carolyn Cudone are no longer alive. Along with other past players, they are remembered at the Celebration Dinner whenever the Curtis Cup is played.

Philomena Garvey of the British team died in the spring of 2009 at the age of 83. Garvey was on six of the seven Curtis Cup teams from 1948 to 1960. It is she who is responsible for the “I” in GB&I. In 1958, when selected for the British team, Garvey, who was Irish, refused to wear the Union Jack. When the Ladies Golf Union decided not to alter their Curtis Cup emblem to include the Irish flag, Garvey refused to play. The following Curtis Cup match, in 1960, saw the Irish flag included in the emblem. Garvey played.

Of those seven American team members, five remained amateurs. Of those five, Cudone, Downey, Nelson and Lesser got married, while Riley continued to work hard in a public-relations job for the remainder of her career.

They all remained active in golf: Riley was Curtis Cup captain in 1962 and played in qualifying for the 1987 U.S. Women’s Mid-Amateur. A tournament was named for her at River Crest Country Club, her home club in Fort Worth. Downey attended Curtis Cup reunions and became a member of the USGA Women’s Mid-Amateur Committee. Cudone was 90 when she went to the last Curtis Cup match at St. Andrews and her junior golf program in Myrtle Beach, S.C., thrived until her death in 2009.

Nelson married Jason Weiss, whose family owned Weiss’s Delicatessen in Indianapolis, serving “the best ham sandwiches in Indiana.” They had two daughters. After her husband died, Jane moved to Florida. She never played golf but became enamored with the ocean, bought a boat and sailed throughout the world. One day, Jane Nelson Weiss was on board her boat, had a heart attack and died on the high seas.

After the 1956 matches, Pat Lesser Harbottle never played in another Curtis Cup. Today she lives in Lakewood, Wash., and is married to John Harbottle, a retired dentist and runner-up in the 1986 USGA Senior Amateur. They have five children, 15 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. She works in her garden and plays golf two or three times a week, playing off a handicap index of 8.

Margaret “Wiffi” Smith was another who never played in another Curtis Cup match. She added a number of other amateur championships to the British and French titles, turned professional and became one of the LPGA’s most colorful players. Severe wrist injuries ended her playing career and today she is a respected golf instructor. She lives in Darlington, Wash.

Barbara Romack played in the 1958 Curtis Cup and remained undefeated in singles. A tie in 1958 allowed Great Britain and Ireland to retain the Cup. Romack turned professional that year, played the tour and retired in the 1970s to play exhibitions and teach the game. She was the LPGA Teacher of the Year in 1987. Today she is the teaching professional at Stonecrest C.C. in Summerfield, Fla.

Only those who have played in the Curtis Cup can ever really know what it means in a player’s life: The bonds, the fun, the dedication and willingness to try, the apprehension and “flag fever” when your name and country are announced on the first tee.

Romack is pensive when remembering her role in the Curtis Cup. “Both sides respected that we represented our countries and we all commanded a lot of respect by what we had achieved,” she said. “I represented my country three times, and I still put my hand over my heart whenever the Star-Spangled Banner is played.”

When Philomena Garvey died, Romack looked up the story on the Web site of the Ladies Golf Union. A photograph was posted of Garvey at the age of 81. In the picture, Garvey is steadying herself with a golf umbrella, beaming as she walked proudly in the lead of a team vying for the Vagliano Cup. “There’s Philomena, what a great game she had,” Romack said softly. “Look at that smile.” And she reached out, gently touching Garvey’s face on the screen.

Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at rglenn@usga.org.

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